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Bruner - Learning Theory in Education

Bruner - Learning Theory in Education

By Dr. Saul McLeod, updated 2019

Bruner's Ideas

  • Like Ausubel (and other cognitive psychologists), Bruner sees the learner as an active agent; emphasising the importance of existing schemata in guiding learning.
  • Bruner argues that students should discern for themselves the structure of subject content - discovering the links and relationships between different facts, concepts and theories (rather than the teacher simply telling them).
  • Piaget and, to an extent, Ausubel, contended that the child must be ready, or made ready, for the subject matter. But Bruner contends just the opposite. According to his theory, the fundamental principles of any subject can be taught at any age, provided the material is converted to a form (and stage) appropriate to the child.
  • The notion of a "spiral curriculum" embodies Bruner's ideas by "spiraling" through similar topics at every age, but consistent with the child's stage of thought.
  • The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn).
  • Cognitive growth involves an interaction between basic human capabilities and "culturally invented technologies that serve as amplifiers of these capabilities." These culturally invented technologies include not just obvious things such as computers and television, but also more abstract notions such as the way a culture categorizes phenomena, and language itself. Bruner would likely agree with Vygotsky that language serves to mediate between environmental stimuli and the individual's response.

Bruner (1966) was concerned with how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking (or representation).

In his research on the cognitive development of children,  Jerome Bruner proposed three modes of representation:

  • Enactive representation (action-based)
  • Iconic representation (image-based)
  • Symbolic representation (language-based)
  • Bruner's constructivist theory suggests it is effective when faced with new material to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners.

    Bruner's work also suggests that a learner even of a very young age is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organized appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists.

    Bruner's Three Modes of Representation

    Modes of representation are the way in which information or knowledge are stored and encoded in memory.

    Rather than neat age-related stages (like Piaget), the modes of representation are integrated and only loosely sequential as they "translate" into each other.

    Enactive (0 - 1 year)

    The first kind of memory. This mode is used within the first year of life (corresponding with Piaget’s sensorimotor stage). Thinking is based entirely on physical actions, and infants learn by doing, rather than by internal representation (or thinking).

    It involves encoding physical action based information and storing it in our memory. For example, in the form of movement as a muscle memory, a baby might remember the action of shaking a rattle.

    This mode continues later in many physical activities, such as learning to ride a bike.

    Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form.

    Iconic (1 - 6 years)

    Information is stored as sensory images (icons), usually visual ones, like pictures in the mind. For some, this is conscious; others say they don’t experience it.

    This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany the verbal information.

    Thinking is also based on the use of other mental images (icons), such as hearing, smell or touch.

    Symbolic (7 years onwards)

    This develops last. This is where information is stored in the form of a code or symbol, such as language. This mode is acquired around six to seven years-old (corresponding to Piaget’s concrete operational stage).

    In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems, such as music.

    Symbols are flexible in that they can be manipulated, ordered, classified, etc. so the user isn’t constrained by actions or images (which have a fixed relation to that which they represent).

    The Importance of Language

    Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts.

    Bruner argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition.

    The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the “here & now” concept. Bruner views the infant as an intelligent & active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult.

    Educational Implications

    The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn).

    For Bruner (1961), the purpose of education is not to impart knowledge, but instead to facilitate a child's thinking and problem-solving skills which can then be transferred to a range of situations. Specifically, education should also develop symbolic thinking in children.

    In 1960 Bruner's text, The Process of Education was published. The main premise of Bruner's text was that students are active learners who construct their own knowledge.


    Bruner (1960) opposed Piaget's notion of readiness. He argued that schools waste time trying to match the complexity of subject material to a child's cognitive stage of development.

    This means students are held back by teachers as certain topics are deemed too difficult to understand and must be taught when the teacher believes the child has reached the appropriate stage of cognitive maturity.

    The Spiral Curriculum

    Bruner (1960) adopts a different view and believes a child (of any age) is capable of understanding complex information:

    'We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.' (p. 33)

    Bruner (1960) explained how this was possible through the concept of the spiral curriculum. This involved information being structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on.

    Therefore, subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficultly (hence the spiral analogy). Ideally, teaching his way should lead to children being able to solve problems by themselves.

    Discovery Learning

    Bruner (1961) proposes that learners construct their own knowledge and do this by organizing and categorizing information using a coding system. Bruner believed that the most effective way to develop a coding system is to discover it rather than being told by the teacher.

    The concept of discovery learning implies that students construct their own knowledge for themselves (also known as a constructivist approach).

    The role of the teacher should not be to teach information by rote learning, but instead to facilitate the learning process. This means that a good teacher will design lessons that help students discover the relationship between bits of information.

    To do this a teacher must give students the information they need, but without organizing for them. The use of the spiral curriculum can aid the process of discovery learning.

    Bruner and Vygotsky

    Both Bruner and Vygotsky emphasize a child's environment, especially the social environment, more than Piaget did. Both agree that adults should play an active role in assisting the child's learning.

    Bruner, like Vygotsky, emphasized the social nature of learning, citing that other people should help a child develop skills through the process of scaffolding.

    '[Scaffolding] refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring' (Bruner, 1978, p. 19).

    He was especially interested in the characteristics of people whom he considered to have achieved their potential as individuals.

    The term scaffolding first appeared in the literature when Wood, Bruner, and Ross described how tutors' interacted with a preschooler to help them solve a block reconstruction problem (Wood et al., 1976).

    The concept of scaffolding is very similar to Vygotsky's notion of the zone of proximal development, and it's not uncommon for the terms to be used interchangeably.

    Scaffolding involves helpful, structured interaction between an adult and a child with the aim of helping the child achieve a specific goal.

    The purpose of the support is to allow the child to achieve higher levels of development by:

    • Simplifying the task or idea.
    • Motivating and encouraging the child.
    • Highlighting important task elements or errors.
    • Giving models that can be imitated.

    Bruner and Piaget

    Children are innately PRE-ADAPTED to learning
    Children have a NATURAL CURIOSITY
    Children’s COGNITIVE STRUCTURES develop over time
    Children are ACTIVE participants in the learning process
    Cognitive development entails the acquisition of SYMBOLS
    Social factors, particularly language, were important for cognitive growth. These underpin the concept of ‘scaffolding’.
    The development of LANGUAGE is a cause not a consequence of cognitive development
    You can SPEED-UP cognitive development. You don’t have to wait for the child to be ready
    The involvement of ADULTS and MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE PEERS makes a big difference
    The involvement of ADULTS and MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE PEERS makes a big difference

    Obviously, there are similarities between Piaget and Bruner, but an important difference is that Bruner’s modes are not related in terms of which presuppose the one that precedes it. While sometimes one mode may dominate in usage, they coexist.

    Bruner states that what determines the level of intellectual development is the extent to which the child has been given appropriate instruction together with practice or experience.

    So - the right way of presentation and the right explanation will enable a child to grasp a concept usually only understood by an adult. His theory stresses the role of education and the adult.

    Although Bruner proposes stages of cognitive development, he doesn’t see them as representing different separate modes of thought at different points of development (like Piaget).

    Instead, he sees a gradual development of cognitive skills and techniques into more integrated “adult” cognitive techniques.

    Bruner views symbolic representation as crucial for cognitive development, and since language is our primary means of symbolizing the world, he attaches great importance to language in determining cognitive development.

    How to reference this article:

    McLeod, S. A. (2019, July 11). Bruner - learning theory in education. Simply Psychology.

    APA Style References

    Bruner, J. S. (1957). Going beyond the information given. New York: Norton.

    Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

    Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

    Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction, Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.

    Bruner, J. S. (1973). The relevance of education. New York: Norton.

    Bruner, J. S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J.M. Levelt (eds.) The Child's Concept of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag.

    Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.

    How to reference this article:

    McLeod, S. A. (2019, July 11). Bruner - learning theory in education. Simply Psychology.

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